Review by Eric Nguyen
Publisher: Fiction Collective 2 (Tuscaloosa, AL, 2019)
The world can be a horrible place. Rivers can dry up. Friends can disappear. A plant can outgrow its pot and wreak havoc. It’s all the same in the worlds of Evelyn Hampton’s surreal collection, Famous Children and Famished Adults, which won Fiction Collective 2’s Ronald Sukenick Innovation Prize. That it was selected for the prize by Noy Holland is apt.
Holland, known for her satisfyingly bizarre and challenging stories, once wrote that the writers she’s “hungriest to read sacrifice ease and fluency,” that they “forego the temptation to add, resist the lure of convention, are wary of the strength of the will; [and] they believe in affect, the work the word does on the body.” Hampton's work fits this bill. She uses strange phrasing and surprising images ("almonds the color of skin, the boy's"), often in speculative settings that disorient readers. If, in a Noy Holland story, you are running through a maze led by a guide running paces ahead of you, in a Hampton story, the light is off as you stumble through an unrecognizable, fantastical territory.
The opening story, “Fishmaker,” pushes the reader into such a place with its unsettling first sentence: “Then I made fish.” The narrator goes on to describe how they “make fish” built from “windshield wiper fluid caps,” “dry fish-eye lenses,” and “a pinch of white pepper.” The world of “Fishmaker” is populated with familiar things: the bank of a river, a small den, a “little cabin on the beach” named Beachcombers Paradise (“the owners hadn’t made the S possessive”). Yet this world is not quite right. The nameless narrator is not human in the way we know it. “I am old,” they say, “I keep my skin in a zipped bag in the refrigerator.” Meanwhile, a tomcat becomes a female cat, which becomes a woman, wearing a captain’s vest commandeering a ship called Deliverance.
Other stories follow similar surreal logic. A filmmaker encounters a mysterious door attached to nothing in “From Documentary Filmmaker Jurgen Grossbinger’s Journal.” The protagonist of “At the Center of the Wasp” returns to an island made of “shit and rot” to bury a perfumer. The coma in “I Carried My Coma” is something that can picked up from the ground and placed in a hand: “It was white and fuzzy and seamed, about to hatch.” And in “Since the Cats All Vanished,” the cats, well, vanish.
Throughout the collection, Hampton remains confident in her world-building, however weird her worlds become. What she builds are worlds gone horribly wrong: climate change and rapid urbanization propel many of these stories. “Fishmaker,” for instance, starts off in a polluted river but the setting soon changes: the river dries up, forcing the narrator to flee. In “Rico,” there’s “a violent coup that had been preparing itself for months.”
The more unsettling stories are the ones in which the apocalypse is quiet, anxious, menacing. “The End of History” features a writer buried in a cloud of content, a social media stream come to life:
As long as she has a mind, and senses connected to it, she will be unable to stop taking in the sights, sounds, feelings, odors, and flavors of her surroundings, and from these sensations her mind will be unable to stop inventing stories and ideas that occur to her one after the next, often so quickly that she has not finished making sense of one before the next one comes, then the next…
In “Air,” Hampton’s language loops around itself in long paragraphs to create a claustrophobic sensation as its protagonist plans to kill their houseplant, which is growing too big for its pot. “You reach a point and think, There’s no going back from here,” the story begins, only to end in, if not the exact same place, in a similar mind space of paranoia. The writing here is acrobatic, redundant, frustrating—a specific kind of verbal disorientation that has its own pleasure.
Ironically, Hampton distrusts words. “At the same time that I stake almost everything on language,” she says in an interview with Jared Daniel Fagen, “I also think that language is always going to be inadequate—language, being entirely conceptual, can’t touch what’s outside of concepts.” And this is partly true in her stories. Hampton’s stories investigate ideas and feelings, but never get to them directly. Instead of looking something in the face, we look at its ghost, which is sometimes more affecting than seeing its corpse. In “Cell Body,” a couple copes with one partner’s likely fatal illness. The narrator never specifies the illness and seems to almost refuse to acknowledge it. In one scene, the narrator willfully ignores the doctor: “While she talked to me,” says the narrator, “I looked out to the water because that was the biggest thing I could see; I wanted the water to cancel out something.”
In these stories for the 21st century, full of horror and danger, where “we who live here rarely know our own motives until much too late, after our actions have had time to acquire a dire direction and shape,” Hampton asks us to do a specific kind of looking—not at the thing itself but at something else: the shadow it makes, the outline of an aura, the space between. As if to say that to survive whatever comes our way, we must be prepared to act differently: see differently, feel differently. Meaningful experimental writing needs to be more than writerly play. It needs to move beyond itself and its words. Evelyn Hampton does precisely that in these astonishingly weird stories.
Eric Nguyen is a writer based in Washington, DC.